Special report. The Golden Globes had always retained at least the pretense of independent judgment, that of peers or critics. The acquisition of the Globes by Eldridge Industries has now set a precedent for a different conception: awards as commercial asset, directly managed by a corporate entity, part of a vertically integrated entertainment group.

Golden Globes Inc: How a Hollywood award joined the neoliberal order

For the last 15 years, as a Los Angeles correspondent for il manifesto, I was a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the guild of Hollywood based foreign correspondents that voted on the Golden Globe Awards. The HFPA has now been disbanded and supplanted by the Golden Globes Association, a corporate entity owned by Eldridge Industries. Its members have turned into employees, something I have opted not to become.

When I joined, the group was a non-profit association of journalists working for foreign publications. It organized press conferences with film and TV artists, directors and show runners. At the end of the year, they crammed catch-up screenings of movies and series and voted on nominations for the awards that had risen to be second only to the Academy Awards for prestige, and quite a bit more fun.

As successful as that model was for decades, the awards’ fall from grace was abrupt, spectacular and worthy of a Hollywood melodrama. In 2021 the Globes and the HFPA were the object of an unprecedented industry boycott, ostensibly motivated by the group’s discriminatory policies. Studios disavowed the HFPA. Publicists withheld talent and canceled all press conferences with association members, stars returned Globes to the West Hollywood headquarters as if radioactive. And NBC canceled a multi-year broadcast license for the awards ceremony, worth hundreds of millions.

The official narrative would point to the absence of Black members in the group of foreign journalists as evidence of racial bias, and the elevated median age that came with the insularity, did explain in part the casual racism of some members’ pronouncements. In fact, however, the problem was more deep-rooted than the discrimination and under-representation that are systemic in the industry.

Clearly the association had problems of inclusivity, related to limiting admissions of new members in general, as these were seen as potential competitors by an entrenched old guard. The racial reckoning nevertheless laid bare the tone-deafness of a privileged group, unable to perceive the moral urgency of the moment, and undertake the reforms that the industry and society rightly demanded. Time and again internal attempts at reforms were thwarted, to the point of rejecting even the DEI consultant the board proposed to hire in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Born at the height of the studio system to increase Hollywood access for foreign journalists who were pretty well ignored by the publicity machine, its awards became wildly successful and the HFPA ended up protecting its exclusivity to a fault, until the privilege fatally impaired its capacity for self-reflection.

Now, in 2020, faced with extinction, it was forced to undertake a process of reform too long deferred. From an association of journalists, one might have expected a period of internal discussion and self-reflection; what transpired instead would be the combination of tightly restricted debate and highly managed public communication, common to disgraced corporations.

A small army of “professionals” was engaged to produce a flurry of press releases and required statements of contrition. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on lawyers, PR consultants and crisis managers — specialists of the DEI rehabilitation industry which has sprung up to service disgraced companies and organizations. Ultimately, the specialized law firm of Ropes and Gray recommended immediate and multiple changes to the governance structure. Members approved the reform plan, even as the process had the inevitable feel of obligatory corporate gestures, such as the rapid recruitment of new members to include a number of African American journalists.

Even Jerrod Carmichael, the queer African American comedian hired to host the 80th Globes in January 2020, publicly questioned the sincerity of the effort. “I’ll tell you why I’m here. I’m here cause I’m Black,” Carmichael said from the Beverly Hilton stage, adding that he had refused the HFPA president’s requests to meet before the show (implying a further effort to coordinate the messaging). “I said no thanks,” he added “I know a trap when I see a trap.”

The HFPA was not the first entity to undergo the now familiar crucible, but this was only part of the story. The Board, now controlled by members who had previously strenuously resisted change, had another plan: privatizing the Globes. Thus, even as the pledged reforms were set to be implemented — including the competitive search for new, impartial leadership, Todd Boehly, the wealthy CEO and co-founder of Eldridge Industries, was invited to present his proposal for the acquisition of “the Golden Globes brand and all related IP.”

Having already acquired an interest in Dick Clark Productions (the company that produces the Globes ceremony) in 2013, Boehly had for years tried to gain more control of the Globes, seeking, for instance, to acquire the digital rights to the awards which were owned by the non-profit HFPA. In 2015 he went as far as offering a sitting HFPA president a position as CEO of one of his companies (that president accepted the offer at the end of his term). He repeatedly tried to convince the HFPA board to expand operations to China, potentially licensing Chinese versions of the Globes and ultimately tried to sell Dick Clark Productions to Beijing-based conglomerate Wanda. That deal came close to being sealed in 2017, before collapsing in the wake of worsening US-China relations.

A few years later, the association’s existential crisis suddenly afforded Boehly the leverage he needed to make his next move: acquiring the Globes outright and remaking them into a for-profit enterprise. In exchange, members — who in some cases have struggled for years on the fringes of a deeply stressed journalism industry — would become paid voters on the Eldridge payroll. As the membership was considering this offer, the newly empowered board, where dissenters had been selectively term limited, abruptly scrapped the pledged third-party search for an outside CEO, and announced the executive position would be filled by… Todd Boehly. The ultimate outcome was never in doubt.

The Globes are now a corporate brand fully owned by Eldridge Industries, a vast holding that also has ownership interests in the Los Angeles Dodgers, London soccer club, Chelsea FC, the Beverly Hilton as well as film distributor/producer A24. Through its partnership with Penske Media Corporation, the varied portfolio of affiliated companies includes major trade publications like The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline Hollywood, Rolling Stone and Billboard. This may account for coverage of the Globes’ conversion that has not exactly been adversarial. The “professionalized” Globes has been heralded as the advent of “employee-based accountability,” where ethics are guaranteed, as the awards’ official website puts it, by “a corporate entity with the expertise and dynamic new leadership to tackle the 21st (century).”

That is a common subtext in the current phase of libertarian corporate capitalism which has gotten new impulse from the advent of digital monopolies. What transpired at the HFPA bears some resemblance, for instance, to what happened at OpenAI, where similar tension between the original non-profit mission of the company and its commercial potential, eventually resolved in favor of maximizing the latter.

The HFPA was also a 501 non-profit. As such, members could not benefit from the increasingly large revenue accrued by the show’s licensing fees (the now defunct multi-year contract with NBC was worth hundreds of millions of dollars). Rather they were “wealth-adjacent,” while the money exerted an irresistible gravitational pull. Just like the vast commercial potential of AI trumped ethical intentions at OpenAI, the prospect of monetizing the Globes outright proved too strong of an enticement for corporate interests.

In his pitch to members, Boehly spoke of plans to “leverage” the brand, floated a Middle Eastern partnership and encouraged the journalists to “smile a little and sell the product.” That “product” is the glittering room full of celebrities that for 80 years convened for a boozy supper that — not without reason — was taglined as “Hollywood’s Biggest Party.” Hollywood has always been at the crossroads of art and commerce, its ineffable miracle: servicing the bottom line while occasionally producing artistic greatness and, of course, self-congratulating for the feat.

Accolades, however, always retained at least the pretense of independent judgment, that of peers or critics. The Eldridge/Globes deal has now set a precedent for a different conception: awards as commercial asset, directly managed by a corporate entity, part of a vertically integrated entertainment group. In the current climate of accelerating consolidation, could the time be far off where commercial entertainment groups own and operate their own awards?

The Globes are now technically voted on by company employees, augmented by a couple of hundred volunteer freelance journalists and digital content creators recruited from 56 countries around the world. Expanding the voting body to global voters clearly makes sense in this age of global markets for entertainment. It may not be a coincidence the move was reportedly the result of close consultation with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, CEO of the company that arguably has the most stakes in reaching a wide global audience. Netflix incidentally wound up with the most Globes nominations this year with 28 — including five of the six in the newly formed Stand-Up Comedy on TV category. From the start, a Boehly motto has, after all, been “leverage the brand” (Eldridge group studio, A24, received a total of 11 nominations this year.)

Could it be that mega corporations are not the purported guarantors of ethical behavior? One answer seemed to come from the Gotham awards handed out last month, when the acceptance speech delivered by Robert De Niro was summarily “edited” by Apple “team-members.” Turns out the company that produced the film De Niro stars in (Flowers of the Killer Moon), would rather cast members speak about their movie rather than about politics, so they removed the “problematic” De Niro remarks that were critical of Donald Trump from the teleprompter behind his back.

That idea of corporate control pervades the new Globes entity. For all its many faults, HFPA membership meetings were a forum of lively debate and disagreement and the kind of discussion you might expect in a co-operative association. In the “professionalized” incarnation, discussion of alternate options for reform were discouraged. Membership meetings were tightly controlled by the board and the consultants brought onboard, all, incidentally, enthusiastic supporters of the Eldridge deal. In the new Globes association, there is scarcely any communication between members who fulfill their voting duties in isolation, nor much transparency. No explanation was given, for instance, of why Dave Chappelle’s comedy special was struck at the last minute from the ballot.

Privatization and corporate control fit into the familiar pattern we’ve witnessed in companies like Twitter — a private company all along, yes, but a functional public forum nevertheless, converted into personal megaphone and, under the guise of “total free speech,” a seemingly permanent provocation factory by celebrity plutocrat Elon Musk. Musk, who has also effectively privatized American spacefaring with Space X, and, through the Starlink system, even geopolitical intervention, has drifted ever closer to the alt-right sphere, fully embracing the “woke mind virus” trope and the libertarian ethos of “freedom before equality.”

Removing major sectors from public purview and placing them under the control of single wealthy individuals is in fact an overarching trend of late capitalism. As the Hollywood strikes recently showed, the entertainment business is run by a corporate structure that more and more resembles the monopolistic oligarchy in charge of Silicon Valley, including CEOs outsized compensation packages and massive wealth disparity between management and workforce.

Outsized wealth, meanwhile, has ever more influence in seemingly every aspect of democracy: in what we think or do on social media platforms, in our politics (a recent study by Northwestern University has shown that 11% of the world’s roughly 2,000 billionaires have run for public office — including one that may be poised for a return to the Oval Office). Oligarchies have an outsized say in our climate future, as became clear in the recent COP28 summit in Dubai — even the Supreme Court of the United States has been revealed to be under the assiduous hidden patronage of plutocrats apparently bent on having their own version of sponsored judges.

Even so, turning voting journalists into outright paid voters seems a singular rationale for restoring awards legitimacy. The current Globes are certainly more seamlessly integrated within an “awards-industrial” complex, where they can be properly monetized, another privatized  fragment of pop culture, now maneuverable according to corporate interests.

The waning days of 2023 saw the news break of the latest possible merger, that of Paramount and Warner Bros. In an industry that is ever more vertically integrated, studios have been forced to integrate legacy operations with on-demand platforms and broadcast divisions — why not add proprietary awards to the package? They are, after all, simply an extension of business operations, part of the big show.

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